Alicia Barnett: Education, injuries and overcoming the mental barriers of tennis

On Wednesday 18 July, Alicia Barnett – or Lissey as she likes to be known – stunned the world number 155 Olivia Rogowska for the loss of just one game. Having successfully hurdled the qualifying rounds, the British 24 year-old reached her first ever semi-final stage of an ITF $25k tournament in Gatineau, Canada.

Her performance in North America continues the steady progress that Lissey has made in 2018. Like most players, her journey into tennis has been far from smooth but the results Barnett is posting is cause for optimism that she can join the ever-growing list of exciting female talent in British tennis.

Balancing political science and practice

Growing up in a sporty family, Lissey took the brave step to move to the USA following the completion of her A-Levels, after receiving a scholarship to play tennis at Northwestern University in Chicago.

“I knew the coach could develop my game and help me transition into professional tennis after college. It was not always a smooth ride, and I think college was some of the most challenging years of my life.

“On top of juggling 20 plus hours of practice with studying towards a political science degree, I had a family tragedy, which frankly knocked me sideways. To make matters worse, I found out I required wrist surgery, which put me out for a few months during my senior year.

“It was an incredibly bumpy ride and sometimes my tennis was less about improving and more about channeling my emotions and forcing something to go right, which has taken a while for me to overcome.”

However, since graduating two years ago, Barnett has been a regular traveller on the ITF tour, competing in 53 ITF tournaments in 12 different countries. Her best performance came in Gatineau a few weeks back, reaching the semi-finals of an ITF 25k tournament for the first time and she did this after coming through the qualifying rounds.

It was a great tournament and I’ve come away with career high wins, a career high ranking and confidence. I focused on playing the right way and doing the right things, which has been the main thing for me during the past few months. The main thing I’ve taken from the trip is to focus on the process and not on the outcomes.

Hurdling the mental challenges of tennis

It’s fair to say that tennis, like most individual sports, is a mentally challenging arena and Lissey had to understand and grasp this aspect at an early stage. The impact of losing an opening round match and there being no guarantee that you will play the same great tennis as you did the previous day means that players have to build a mental resilience in order to succeed.

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Barnett’s experiences through her early career setbacks means she has a mental toughness and her dad has helped her along the way.

“My dad has always been there for me and my tennis, and has always said to us to bust a gut and leave it all out there. He sends me texts before every match that are always key words like “intensity, confidence, fight” so I think these have been important lessons for me to grow up with. I have also had really supportive coaches and teams around me where I have learnt invaluable lessons mainly about believing in myself and realising I am good and I can compete at a high level.”

Another hurdle on the tennis journey is money. It’s well reported that players ranked below the top 100 find it difficult to fund their careers and often have to resort to self-funding. Whilst Roger Federer is able to announce a multi-million dollar sponsorship with Uniqlo, players like Lissey simply don’t have those offers meaning she has to donate some of her time to coaching.

“The LTA have provided support for me in the way of wildcards into tournaments, which I really appreciate, and I try to coach as much as possible when I am home. Sadly, I do not have any sponsors at the moment and I am constantly on the lookout for potential sponsors.”

Tennis also has a lot of misconceptions labelled to it. Having perfected the art of doing things on the cheap, finding roommates at the last minute and preparing her meals, Lissey has had to deal with more than most 24 year-olds.

“A lot of the time I feel people don’t look past the travel. They see it as a fun adventure, which a lot of the time it is, but sometimes the only part of the country you see is the tennis court and the hotel. You are travelling alone trying to navigate to the middle of nowhere in a foreign language.

“The friends you create on tour are long lasting but at the end of the day they are your opponents and you’re competing against them, which can be tough.”

Looking ahead

With a new career high, Lissey Barnett has an opportunity to establish herself on the next level of the ITF circuit. With two British ITF 25k events coming up in Woking and Chiswick, Barnett can build on her experiences to challenge for titles.

Last year, Barnett lost to eventual champion Jasmine Paolini in the second round in Woking. “I have come a long way since then and have worked hard with my team at Bath to develop as a player. My goal is to play one match at a time and give each one everything I have, setting out to play with the right intentions and the right intensity. If I can do that, then the rest will come.”

With 2017 Woking champion Paolini – and beaten finalist Mihaela Buzarnescu – making great strides on the WTA circuit this year, there is cause for great optimism that players competing in 25k tournaments have the chance to really make it on the tour. For Barnett, her immediate targets are set.

My outcome goals are to reach a final of a $25k, to get my ranking below 250 and to play Wimbledon qualifying

The future is looking bright, but Lissey still has back-up plans should injury force an early retirement.

“I have a degree under my belt just in case I get injured or anything, so hopefully that will help me in post-tennis life. I also did my level 1 coaching a few years ago and would be willing to do my next qualifications if time permits just to give myself more options. At the moment though, my eyes are pretty set on playing tennis.”

Lissey has the right attitude and knows that she has the ability to break new ground in her tennis. Her performance in Gatineau will have raised eyebrows among both fans and the LTA, as Barnett proves that she’s ready to compete at higher levels and succeed. There are challenges ahead, and Barnett knows this, but she has already faced so much in her short career.

There’s no reason why she cannot become the next breakthrough star on the tour.

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